Apr 28 2009

4 Tips to Get Your Help Desk Moving in the Right Direction

Documentation and imaging are two key components to running an efficient help desk.

These days, computers are essential for day-to-day operations. We have come to depend on them so much that if a glitch prevents the day’s work from getting done, it can cost an organization a tremendous amount of time and money. Providing a place where computers can be serviced and put back to work in a timely fashion is a necessity. The following are some tips that should help get your help desk moving in the right direction.


I cannot stress enough how important thorough documentation is to running an efficient help desk, regardless of how much time it takes. There are several key items that you need to document.

First, document all of your current processes and policies. I keep hundreds of how-to documents on all the tasks needed to run my help desk — instructions as simple as how to add a printer and as complicated as installing a certain custom database that is located on a specific server. Your goal is to create documentation that is so complete that if you ever are hit by a bus, someone else can jump right in and do your job. But a more immediate advantage is that if a user sends an e-mail or calls asking for help, you will have a set of instructions ready to provide them.

You should also keep documentation on all of your policies, such as the company’s stance on users storing personal files on company servers and the proper use of the organization’s e-mail system. If changes are made to any of these policies, then good documentation will help you keep your users informed.

A great place to store this documentation is on a wiki site. This will let you set permissions as you see fit and provide easy access for your users. One of my favorites, from Mindtouch, is a free wiki that has a lot of features and is very flexible. Editing wiki documents is simple for almost any user.


If you have a large number of notebooks and desktops on your site, there is a good chance you have several of the same make and model. Some organizations provide employees with notebooks so everyone is working with the same technology. When the hardware is the same, it’s easy to use disk cloning or imaging technology to quickly deploy computers.

Imaging makes a copy of a computer's hard drive — all of the files, settings and the operating system — and places it on another computer. This is a much faster process than manually rebuilding every desktop and notebook one by one.

Among the more popular imaging systems are Symantec Ghost and Kace KBOX. Typically, you keep several images of each model of notebook and desktop on a server. Then you can boot into your imaging software and choose the image you want to pull onto the target computer. I prefer to keep at least three versions of an image for each model of computer I have in use. This lets me roll back to an earlier version if I make any changes that cause trouble.

Trouble-Ticket Tracking

It’s important to keep track of all of the calls that come into your help desk. This is imperative for keeping your help desk performing at maximum efficiency. A trouble-ticket system will make note of any recurring problems that may need the manufacturer’s attention. Also, when an issue is resolved, there will be detailed notes in the ticket about how to correct it — a boon for troubleshooting if the problem pops up again.

You can also use such a system to keep track of your technicians’ time. By looking at the amount of time spent on work orders, you can see whether you are under- or overstaffed. There are several brands of trouble-ticket software available. Some are open-source; others must be purchased. It’s often best to develop a customized system that will cover your specific needs so you cano avoid the overhead of features that you don’t want. I have tried several commercial products; they all have a lot of features, but none of them does any one thing very well, and none of them offer custom setups.

Become a Self-maintainer

If you have a large number of computers, most manufacturers will train you to become a self-maintainer. Certification normally requires a short test and small fee, and will allow your help desk to perform warranty repairs in house instead of shipping a broken computer off to be fixed. With simple repairs, that gets the computer back in user's hands more quickly.

When you’re a self-maintainer, not only do you get your users back to work faster, but most companies will actually pay you to do the warranty work. We manage about 800 computers, and with all of the repairs we do, we bring in nearly $10,000 a year by making warranty repairs. It is actually cheaper for the manufacturer to have the customer make warranty repairs to avoid shipping and handling fees.

If you choose to go this route, you will eventually be audited by the manufacturer, so be sure your documentation is very detailed. I would suggest that you refrain from doing any repairs that would be covered under accident protection, such as fixing a notebook that’s been dropped down the stairs or run over by a car. Send those repairs to the manufacturer to determine if it is a covered repair or not.

Justin Dover is network administrator at Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Tenn.